It’s the small charms that help make “Night Listener” a minor, but agreeable psychological thriller. Calm, insular work from Robin Williams builds on the solid screenwriting, creating a film not about twists, but the lonely trail of betrayal and fabrication.Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams) is a soothing talk radio personality specializing in embellishing stories from his daily life. When handed a memoir of sexual abuse written by a 14 year-old named Pete (Rory Culkin), Gabriel is quickly consumed by the book, and accepts the opportunity to speak to the boy over the phone. Gabriel’s dreary world is brightened by their friendship, but when those around him raise doubts about the boy’s existence, Gabriel travels to Wisconsin to meet the writer and his eccentric mother (Toni Collette).
“Night Listener” is a humble psychological thriller shoehorned into a heated August release date where it doesn’t belong. The studio is promising thrills and chills, but this picture doesn’t dance to that tune.
Adapted by celebrated author Armistead Maupin (with Terry Anderson) from his 2000 novel, “Listener” is a dense look (based on truth) at the hollow existence of a writer who cannibalizes his own life for the entertainment of others. Played with a thick layer of purple funk by Robin Williams, Gabriel is a broken man in the midst of a painful breakup with his boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), the crumbling of his artistic inspiration, and rising doubt over Pete’s true whereabouts. Maupin’s screenplay seeks to concentrate on the essential character impulses to further the story, but he leaves room for interesting asides featuring Gabriel’s gay angst about growing older and feeling unwanted by his younger lover, as well as his prickly relationship with his father.
While I wasn’t a fan of his constipated debut picture “The Business of Strangers,” director Patrick Stettner has a strong hold on the many facets of “Listener.” There are times when watching Gabriel try to figure out his personal life is far more interesting than the central thriller unfolding. Stettner balances the characters with the mystery very well, and doesn’t go overboard trying to polish either side to perfection. “Listener” is an intimate story, and Stettner directs accordingly, appreciating Maupin’s delicate framework and doesn’t push his weight around trying to shape the material into standard thriller mode.
What I treasured most about “Listener” is that it never felt the need to attempt a massive plot twist to suck the viewer in. Perhaps some will find the slow roll out of the mystery here not exciting enough; however, I was tickled to see a picture with patience and resolve to not play street corner card tricks.This is a potent mind game that doesn’t need fireworks to click. “The Night Listener” doesn’t hammer home the bite of big Hollywood entertainment, but it does deliver an engrossing and emotionally rich tale of deceit.